Guide to Online Photo Album Sites

The holidays are ending. Now you've got all those digital photos of kids opening presents, teenagers on skis, and Aunt Edna passed out from too much eggnog. You need a way to share those pictures with your friends and family.

Here's where photo album Web sites come in. In hopes that you and your loved ones will buy prints, these sites let you post your photos free of charge for anyone to view.

It's amazing how many of these sites are out there. To name just a few, you'll find Sony's ImageStation, Kodak's Ofoto, Slug's PBase, PictureTrail, Shutterfly, Snapfish, and Yahoo Photos.

Here's an introduction to what to expect when you pick an album site, what to look for, and what to look out for. Luckily, it's not a major commitment; you can always try a different site with your next album. Many others are available.

Picking a Site

Not all album sites are free. PBase and PictureTrail give you limited, temporary free accounts, but then expect you to pay for something longer-lasting or more powerful. The price isn't high--less than $25 a year for either--but it's more than you'd pay at a free site.

It's a bit surprising that free album sites have survived when so many other free Internet services have not. It seems amazing that companies can still give away server space and bandwidth in hopes of selling a few prints. It's possible they won't last, which is why you should be cautious about depending on one as a form of archival storage for your photos (CD-Rs are a better choice). But they're around now and you may as well use them for sharing and for prints.

Speaking of prints, and of freebies, these sites often offer free prints as a bonus when you first sign up--which is a pretty good argument for using more than one site. Shutterfly's current bonus appears the best, offering 15 free prints to new members. Well, they're almost free: You pay for shipping. But that can change, so look around before picking a site.

Create an Album

Once you've picked a site, you'll have to sign up. Most require your name, e-mail address, and a password. If you have a Yahoo account, you already have a Yahoo Photos account.

Then you can create an album and start uploading your pictures. With ImageStation, though, you upload the pictures first, then create an album. The easiest way to upload pictures is to drag and drop them from Windows Explorer to a box on a Web page, an option that all of these sites offer--after you've allowed the site to install a small browser add-in.

The sites all let you to rearrange the order of the pictures, as well as add titles and captions. Rearranging is an easy, drag-and-drop job. Titles and captions certainly make your pictures more understandable, but not all of us have the patience to add them.

Share Your Images

You want to share your pictures with family and friends, and the Web sites want you to share them: The more people who look at them, the better the chance of selling prints.

But the sites typically make sharing pictures "easy" in a way that actually makes it difficult. They want you to enter e-mail addresses into a Web form so they can send announcements to your loved ones. This means you have to type or paste in addresses that you already have in your regular e-mail address book; if you could use your own e-mail program, you could just click them.

What's more, not everyone you know may want these sites to have their e-mail address. Finally, these notices tend to be highly formatted e-mail messages, complete with photos, buttons, and a subject like "Enjoy my photos"--not the sort of thing that always gets through spam filters.

You're better off just copying the URL from the album page and pasting it into an e-mail message you write yourself. But that doesn't always work. Some sites, such as Shutterfly, use one URL to display an album to its creator and another for everyone else.

A more certain work-around is to use the site's Web form to send one invitation--to yourself. Once you get that, you can copy the URL the site provides in the e-mail message, and pass it along to your friends and family.

Of this assortment of sites, Yahoo Photo is the only one that offers a more reasonable way to invite friends. The site provides an option that gives you an easy-to-type URL.

If you don't want your friends and family to have to sign up just to look at your online album, consider that when you choose your photo site. This restriction is key to ImageStation and Snapfish.

Get It on Paper--And More

Of course, the sites hope you and your loved ones will order plenty of prints--which is more expensive than using your own ink-jet printer. However, if you consider the costs of ink and good photo paper, the difference isn't substantial. Besides, the print quality is generally excellent and you don't have to mess with scissors.

In addition to prints, these sites sell all sorts of photo-oriented gifts to make your kids' grandparents happy. These include coffee mugs, calendars, T-shirts, and greeting cards.

But Sony's ImageStation offers what must be the strangest photo gift of all: chocolates, cookies, and candies with your photos glazed on. The Web site does not list the ingredients.

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